“If you’re going to jump, at least give me time to compose a ballad in your honor,” said Nikolai. I turned to see him striding onto the terrace, blond hair shining. He’d thrown on an elegant greatcoat of army drab, marked with the golden double eagle. “Something with lots of sad fiddle and a verse devoted to your love of herring.”
“If I wait, I may have to hear you sing it.”
“I happen to have a more than passable baritone. And what’s the rush? Is it my cologne?”
“You don’t wear cologne.”
“I have such a naturally delightful scent that it seems like overkill. But if you have a penchant for it, I’ll start.”
I wrinkled my nose. “No, thank you.”
“I shall obey you in all things. Especially after that demonstration,” he said with a nod to the lopped-off mountain. “Anytime you want me to take off my hat, please just ask.”
“Looks impressive, doesn’t it?” I said with a sigh. “But the Darkling learned at Baghra’s knee. He’s had hundreds of years to master his power. I’ve had less than one.”
“I have a gift for you.”
“Is it the firebird?”
“Was that what you wanted? Should have told me sooner.” He reached into his pocket and placed something atop the wall.
Light glinted off an emerald ring. The lush green stone at its center was bigger than my thumbnail and surrounded by stars of tiny diamonds.
“Understatement is overrated,” I said on a shaky breath.
“I love it when you quote me.” Nikolai tapped the ring. “Console yourself knowing that, should you ever punch me while wearing it, you’ll probably take my eye out. And I’d very much like you to. Wear it, that is. Not punch me.”
“Where did you get this thing?”
“My mother gave it to me before she left. It’s the Lantsov emerald. She was wearing it at my birthday dinner the night we were attacked. Curiously enough, that was not the worst birthday I’ve had.”
“When I was ten, my parents hired a clown.”
Tentatively, I reached out and picked up the ring. “Heavy,” I said.
“A mere boulder, really.”
“Did you tell your mother you planned to give it to a common orphan?”
“She did most of the talking,” he said. “She wanted to tell me about Magnus Opjer.”
“A Fjerdan ambassador, quite a sailor, made his money in shipping.” Nikolai looked out at the cloud bank. “Also my father, apparently.”
I wasn’t sure whether to offer congratulations or condolences. Nikolai talked about the conditions of his birth easily enough, but I knew he felt the sting of it more deeply than he admitted.
“It’s strange to actually know,” he continued. “I think some part of me always hoped the rumors were just that.”
“You’ll still make a great king.”
“Of course I will,” he scoffed. “I’m melancholy, not daft.” He brushed an invisible piece of lint from his sleeve. “I don’t know if she’ll ever forgive me for sending her into exile, especially to the Colonies.”
Was it harder to lose a mother or to simply never know one? Either way, I felt for him. He’d lost his family piece by piece—first his brother, now his parents. “I’m sorry, Nikolai.”
“What is there to be sorry about? I’ve finally gotten what I wanted. The King has stepped down, the path to the throne is clear. If there weren’t an all-powerful dictator and his monstrous horde to attend to, I’d be opening a bottle of champagne.”
Nikolai could be as glib as he wanted. I knew this wasn’t how he’d imagined assuming leadership of Ravka—his brother murdered, his father brought low by the sordid accusations of a servant.
“When will you take the crown?” I asked.
“Not until we’ve won. I’ll be crowned in Os Alta or not at all. And the first step is consolidating our alliance with West Ravka.”
“Hence the ring?”
“Hence the ring.” He smoothed the edge of his lapel and said, “You know, you could have told me about Genya.”
I felt a wash of guilt. “I was trying to protect her. Not enough people have done that.”
“I don’t want lies between us, Alina.” Was he thinking of his father’s crimes? His mother’s dalliance? Still, he wasn’t quite being fair.
“How many lies have you told me, Sturmhond?” I gestured to the Spinning Wheel. “How many secrets have you kept until you were ready to share them?”
He tucked his hands behind his back, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Prince’s prerogative?”
“If a mere prince gets a pass, so does a living Saint.”
“Are you going to make a habit of winning arguments? It’s very unbecoming.”
“Was this an argument?”
“Obviously not. I don’t lose arguments.” Then he peered over the side. “Saints, is he running the ice stairs?”
I squinted through the mist. Sure enough, someone was making his way up the narrow, zigzagging steps along the cliff side, his breath pluming in the icy air. It took me only a moment to realize it was Mal, head bent, pack on his shoulders.
“Looks … bracing. If he keeps this up, I may actually have to start exerting myself.” Nikolai’s tone was light, but I could feel his clever hazel eyes on me. “Assuming we best the Darkling, as I’m sure we will, does Mal plan to stay on as the captain of your guard?”
I caught myself before I could rub my thumb over the scar on my palm.
“I don’t know.” Despite everything that had happened, I wanted to keep Mal near. That wouldn’t be fair to either of us. I made myself say, “I think it might be better if he was reassigned. He’s good in combat, but he’s a better tracker.”
“You know he won’t take a commission away from the fighting.”
“Do what you think is best.” The pain was like a slender knife gliding right between my ribs. I was cutting Mal out of my life, but my voice was steady. Nikolai had taught me well. I tried to hand the ring back. “I can’t accept this. Not now.” Maybe not ever.
“Keep it,” he said, curling my fingers over the emerald. “A privateer learns to press any advantage.”
“And a prince?”
“Princes get used to the word yes.”
* * *
WHEN I GOT BACK to my room that evening, Nikolai had more surprises waiting. I hesitated, then turned on my heel and marched down the corridor to where the other girls were lodged. For a long second, I just stood there, feeling shy and foolish, then I forced myself to knock.
Nadia answered. Behind her, I saw Tamar had come to visit and was sharpening her axes by the window. Genya sat at the table, sewing gold thread around another eye patch, and Zoya was lounging on one of the beds, keeping a feather aloft with a gust from her fingertips.
“I need to show you something,” I said.
“What is it?” asked Zoya, keeping her eyes on the feather.
“Just come and see.”
She rolled herself off the bed with an exasperated sigh. I led them down the hallway to my room, and threw open the door.
Genya dove into the pile of gowns laid out on my bed. “Silk!” she moaned. “Velvet!”
Zoya picked up a kefta hanging over the back of my chair. It was gold brocade, the sleeves and hem embroidered lavishly in blue, the cuffs marked with jeweled sunbursts. “Sable,” she said to me, stroking the lining. “I have never loathed you more.”
“That one’s mine,” I said. “But the rest are up for grabs. I can’t wear all of them in West Ravka.”
“Did Nikolai have these made for you?” Nadia asked.
“He’s not a big believer in half measures.”
“Are you sure he wants you giving them away?”
“Lending,” I corrected. “And if he doesn’t like it, he can learn to leave more careful instructions.”
“It’s smart,” Tamar said, tossing a teal cape over her shoulders and looking at herse
lf in the mirror. “He needs to look like a King, and you need to look like a Queen.”
“There’s something else,” I said. Again, I felt that shyness creep over me. I still didn’t quite know how to behave around the other Grisha. Were they friends? Subjects? This was new territory. But I didn’t want to be alone in my room with nothing but my thoughts and a pile of dresses for company.
I took out Nikolai’s ring and set it on the table.
“Saints,” breathed Genya. “That’s the Lantsov emerald.”
It seemed to glow in the lamplight, the tiny diamonds twinkling around it.
“Did he just give it to you? To keep?” asked Nadia.
Genya seized my arm. “Did he propose?”
“He might as well have,” Genya said. “That ring is an heirloom. The Queen wore it everywhere, even to sleep.”
“Toss him over,” Zoya said. “Break his heart cruelly. I will gladly give our poor prince comfort, and I would make a magnificent queen.”
I laughed. “You actually might, Zoya. If you could stop being horrible for a minute.”